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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. RANDY QUAN FOR THE GlOBE AND MAIL (Randy Quan/Randy Quan/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

DOUG SAUNDERS

Our inner cities became the safest places. Let's export urban safety Add to ...

Have you heard about Chicago? It’s murder city, they say. Every week there seems to be some especially grisly, often racially charged, multiple gang murder there. Or what about Toronto: Shootings, stabbings, beatings – even a guy murdered in the food court of the Eaton Centre. These sound like dangerous places.

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Except that they’re not – not even close. Chicago, in fact, is an exceptionally safe place; it is enjoying its lowest murder rate since 1963. If you list the most murder-prone cities in the United States, Chicago doesn’t make the top 25; it’s safer than much smaller cities such as Harrisburg, Pa., and even many rural areas. Toronto? Even more so: In terms of your odds of being murdered, mugged or sexually assaulted, it’s the 52nd most-dangerous city in Canada. Toronto, in fact, is the least crime-ridden of any census metropolitan area in Canada.

Why do we believe North America’s biggest cities are dangerous when they are, in fact, among the safest places in the world? In large part, because it was once true: For most of the 20th century (and a good part of the 19th), our big cities really were dangerous. Murders, muggings, armed robberies and sexual assaults were big-city phenomena, and the way to escape physical danger was to move away. Today, the opposite is true.

If you really want to find murder city, you need to get out of North America. The most violent cities in the world are places that used to be small and peaceful, but have very recently become huge cities. And no wonder: The cities of the Southern and Eastern hemispheres are doing today what our cities did a century ago: Absorbing huge, formerly rural populations. In 50 years, Kinshasa has grown from 500,000 to 8 million people; Istanbul from 900,000 to 12 million.

And with these sudden transitions from subsistence rural life (where families are isolated, and men and women have fixed and inflexible roles) to urban life (where those structures disappear and the old stabilities are replaced with new freedoms) there are often terrible risks, especially for women. The forces that turned New York, London and Chicago into highly violent places in the 19th and 20th centuries – inward migration, municipal corruption, unfinished infrastructure, weak and militaristic policing – are now at work on the other side of the world, not long after we’ve finally found ways to overcome them.

Is it time to start exporting these techniques? That’s the subject of an important new study commissioned by Canada’s International Development Research Centre and Britain’s Department for International Development.

“The twenty-first century,” it concludes, “is witness to a crisis of urban violence.” The two billion people becoming city-dwellers are facing the “urban dilemma” – they realize that moving to the city is an improvement in their lives by most known measures, but it does expose them to greater risk and danger. So while urbanization has cut world poverty in half and lifted billions out of starvation, the hives of crime and danger in the city are preventing the next step into prosperity: “This dark side of urbanization threatens to erase its potential to stimulate growth, productivity and economic dividends.”

By no means is this inevitable. Cities are not naturally more violent: Yes, Caracas and Cape Town have horrendous murder rates. On the other hand, very densely-populated cities such as Dhaka and Mumbai have rates below their national averages – they are actually safer places to live than the villages migrants are leaving behind. In poor countries, and here in the West, the really huge cities are often much safer than the small and medium-sized ones, where the real corruption and danger lie. In India, which has been galvanized by a rape crisis in the fast-urbanizing north, new research shows that rates of sexual assault and rape remain higher in rural areas. And we have learned from Brazil and South Africa that big, bold interventions can make dangerous cities safer.

So we know that urban violence is a temporary, reversible phenomenon. What can we offer?

First, good policing: In most countries, urban police are simply branches of the national army, often deeply corrupt. Turning cops into local residents and social workers is a crucial development.

Second, good institutions: Our cities became safe when their governments, courts and transit systems started working.

And third, good design: Crime happens in those unwatched, unowned empty spaces. Filling them in with fully owned housing makes streets safer. When we create pride in ownership in our cities, we create an appetite for safety – something the whole world wants.

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